by Jen Lucas, Pack Up + Go Contributor
Since my very first travel experience, visiting my grandparents in Phoenix, Arizona at six months old, I haven’t been able to keep my feet on the ground for extended periods of time. Some of us have this unquenchable thirst to see and experience as much of the world as we possibly can during our lifetime. No matter how many amazing trips we’ve taken, people we’ve met, or bucket list destinations we’ve checked off, it just won’t stop there. I’ve always wondered: is this wanderlust gene passed down from our ancestors?
Personally, I come from two very distinct lines: nomads on one side and essentially non-travelers on the other. So, given these odds, I have always been interested in further understanding the science behind these traits.
Approximately 70,000 years ago, the first of our ancestors started their journey out of Africa, making humans the most traveled of all species. While other species tend to stay in the same region as they were born, in modern times people have managed to inhabit every continent in the world in a relatively short amount of time.
“No other mammal moves around as we do,” Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, told National Geographic. “We jump borders. We push into new territory even when we have resources where we are. Other animals don’t do this. In just 50,000 years we covered everything. There’s a kind of madness to it. Sailing out into the ocean, you have no idea what’s on the other side. And now we go to Mars. We never stop. Why?”
Most research studying humanity’s “travel behavior” tends to focus on our genes. A variation of the DRD4 gene, which itself links to reasoning and behavior, the DRD4-7R gene, is linked with restlessness and curiosity. Approximately 20% of the human population seems to carry this variation – thus rationalizing their need to explore. A study showed that those whose ancestors journeyed the farthest out of Africa were more likely to have the DRD4-7R gene.
Other evidence points to our imagination, not our DNA, playing a significant role in our need to explore far-off lands.
Alison Gopnik, a child-development psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says humans have another asset that fosters that imaginative capacity. We have a longer childhood than other species and in turn are dependent on our parents for a greater amount of time. Nursing in humans typically ends about a year and a half earlier than it does for gorillas and chimps. From there, it takes us longer to get to puberty than our primate cousins. Because of this, we have a lengthy growth period during which we are able to learn the value of exploration.
Regardless of which theory you side with, it seems that there is a definite correlation between one’s familial traits and whether or not you are a wanderer at heart.
As I mentioned, I can be considered an “in-between” with one side of my family tree where travel was not a necessity and the other side being the complete opposite. I have been fortunate enough to have traveled extensively throughout my childhood but still know that I was born with the “gypsy gene,” inherited from my mom and grandmother, whereas my brother did not.
This phenomenon can be traced back to past lives, if you believe in that sort of thing (I do!). I’ve had my birth chart analyzed showing that I had nomadic tendencies and have traveled to foreign lands as a messenger/interpreter in most of my past lives. It’s something I’ve always recognized deep down and, as an evolutionary astrology believer, have now confirmed.
As individuals, we choose our habits and how we live our lives, whether that means quitting our jobs to travel the world for a year, taking the occasional weekend trip, finding a staycation to be completely fulfilling, or never even using vacation time. Those who tend to travel would most likely attest to the fact that they carry the travel gene and have no choice but to acknowledge and nurture it.
*Parts of this article were written after referencing National Geographic’s article, “Restless Genes” written by David Dobbs.